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Disability is Shaping the 2020 Presidential Race—But Not in the Way That It Should

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

If you take Donald Trump’s word for it, he’s “all there,” while his presumed Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, may not be. According to Trump, doctors at Walter Reed Medical Center found the president’s performance on a recent cognitive exam “unbelievable,” given the extent to which Trump “aced the test.” Trump told Sean Hannity on Fox News that the test refutes claims from “the radical left” concerning the president’s diminished mental state. “I proved I was all there,” he exclaimed, while also insisting that Biden “should take the same exact test, a very standard test.”

During a pandemic that has devastated vulnerable populations across the country, a parallel battle has played out in the contest between the two presidential frontrunners: Their health has become a foremost issue in the upcoming election, laying bare how the presidential body symbolizes abstract ideas of health, vitality, and strength.

But this focus on “fitness” is misplaced, privileging the performance of leadership over its substance. Instead of concentrating on the optics of the presidency — how “presidential” either Trump or Biden might seem — voters should hone in on the ideologies and policy orientations that have engendered the interlocking crises now buffeting the United States: a vicious, ongoing pandemic, a flagging economy, and a national reckoning with racist police and penal violence.

White supremacy, xenophobia, market capitalism, and a hideously unequal healthcare system have immiserated broad swaths of the American public. The 2020 presidential election should hinge on these material issues, rather than on highly speculative and unconstructive assessments of “fitness” and ability. At a time when over 4 million people in the US have been stricken with the deadly coronavirus (a number rapidly rising each day), disability — sickness, illness, and impairments — must not be stigmatized or marginalized.

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Beyond his typically gaffe-prone public speaking of years past, Biden has recently said some bizarre things. He claimed to be running for Senate, for example, against “the other Biden.” He told folks to visit the text message Joe 30330 (mistaking it for a website). He advised parents to “make sure [they] have the record player on at night” to increase kids’ language proficiency. He appeared to recite and then immediately forget the Declaration of Independence. He has berated activists at his events, telling people to vote for Trump if they don’t like him. And he mixed up his wife and sister in his Super Tuesday victory speech.

Trump has already begun to attack Biden for his supposed cognitive decline. In a recent official campaign ad from Trump, Biden appears in a series of scenes in which he seems confused, disoriented, or at a loss for words. Earlier this year — with the Democratic primaries in full swing — Tucker Carlson began a monologue on his Fox News show in this way: “Joe Biden is weak, and he’s getting weaker. Ask anyone who knows him, or who’s watched him carefully over the past fifty years. Biden is noticeably more confused now than he was even last spring, when he entered the race.” In an appearance on Fox News’s America’s Newsroom, Lara Trump insisted that questioning Biden’s cognitive state is “fair” — “a lot of folks legitimately … question his cognitive function in many cases.”

Indeed, this has become a core element of Fox News’s counter-Biden propaganda. (As one representative headline on the Fox News website read, “Joe Biden might need same ‘cognitive test’ that Trump ‘aced,’ former WH doctor Ronny Jackson says.”) For Trump, whose prospects for reelection have dimmed amidst the ongoing and intensifying coronavirus pandemic and the crisis over racist policing, portraying Biden as senile and sundowning serves to underline the president’s supposed strength and vitality.

Likewise, Trump’s brash demeanor, incoherent rhetoric, and ignorance have encouraged his detractors to pathologize him as a disabled toddler-in-chief. This month US congressman Don Beyer (D–VA) shared a tweet comparing the president to a toddler. According to Beyer, Trump’s curious commitment to the notion that the novel coronavirus will simply “disappear” makes him less sophisticated than a “toddler who touches a stove” and quickly learns “not [to] touch it again.” Earlier this year, political scientist Daniel Drezner (whose Twitter following currently sits at 142,000) published a book with the University of Chicago Press titled The Toddler in Chief: What Donald Trump Teaches Us about the Modern Presidency. On the book’s cover appears an image of the iconic and ubiquitous “Trump Baby” balloon, which has been flown across the globe partially to protest Trump’s policies, but primarily to lampoon his appearance and comportment. After all, the inflatable caricature sports an irritated grimace — indicative of Trump’s poor temperament — as well as a smartphone, a clear reference to the president’s infamous Twitter rampages.

Likening people with disabilities to children is a well-worn ableist practice. As Jennifer Stevenson puts it: “Adults with disabilities in general, and those with developmental disabilities in particular, have long been treated as childlike entities, deserving fewer rights and incurring greater condescension than adults without disabilities. The stereotype of the ‘eternal child’ has burned a disturbing path through history.”

Efforts to infantilize Trump — to depict him as deficient — therefore fit hand-in-glove with intense scrutiny of his physical, mental, and intellectual capacities. Following Trump’s West Point commencement speech last month — during which his water-drinking and ramp-descending abilities came under fire — the Republican-led Lincoln Project unveiled an ad denigrating the president as “unfit” and “weak.” “Something’s wrong with Donald Trump,” the spot declares. “The most powerful office in the world needs more than a weak, unfit, shaky president.”

As disability rights activist Rebecca Cokley noted in the Washington Post, the hashtags #TrumpWaterChallenge and #HowToRamp trended after Trump’s appearance at West Point. So too did #TrumpIsNotWell, thanks to the efforts of the Lincoln Project, whose members hope to elect Biden and thereby insinuate themselves into the Democratic Party.

Ultimately, these attacks from both sides underscore what disability theorist Tobin Siebers has described time and time again: “The pathologization of other identities by disability… summons the historical and representational structures by which disability, sickness, and injury come to signify inferior human status.” This tactic not only reinforces the idea that disability is incompatible with ideal leadership; it also plays into Trump’s hands by transforming the presidential race into a competition of appearances. The claim that disability renders an individual unable to serve as president is both ableist and historically inaccurate, as we have detailed elsewhere. Indeed, advanced age and neurological difference might even make a political figure more attuned to critical issues like universal healthcare, economic security, and the spread of COVID-19. Personal experience might translate into more effective policymaking.

Though ableism is ugly in all its permutations — whether deployed in favor of Biden, Trump, or otherwise — the two major party presidential candidates present competing visions for the country’s future. While Trump promises more of the same mass death from coronavirus and police violence in the service of white supremacy, Biden potentially offers another path, so long as he embraces the more ambitious, more inclusive policies he has often resisted: universal healthcare, expanded social safety nets, and defunding the police. So far, Biden’s record leaves much to be desired. He buoyed the exploitative credit card industry in Delaware, voted for the Iraq War, supported the PATRIOT Act, spent decades trying to cut Social Security, voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, backed NAFTA, and pushed many “tough on crime” policies that helped swell the US jail and prison population. For more left-leaning voters disappointed with Biden’s ascent, the former vice president’s cognitive abilities are not the obstacle; his policies are. Similarly, Trump’s supposed disability has not prevented him from imposing devastating measures on vulnerable populations.

The thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act — an anniversary observed by the Biden campaign this past Sunday — compels us to reimagine disability in ways that honor bodily difference as a valuable aspect of the human experience, while also recognizing the violence visited upon people with disabilities. As the Harriet Tubman Collective states forcefully, police violence and incarceration disproportionately affect people with disabilities: “Disabled people represent the largest ‘minority’ population in jails and prisons. … Those who survive incarceration, come home to an inaccessible social services infrastructure that provides almost no support.” In the COVID-19 pandemic and in the epidemics of police and carceral violence, people with disabilities (and particularly people of color with disabilities) are disproportionately victimized.

Biden, the last of the Democratic primary frontrunners to release a disability plan, has now published both a disability policy platform and a specific plan for people with disabilities during the onslaught of COVID-19. These policy proposals offer much-needed solutions to persistent issues in disability discrimination — including subminimum wage, housing needs for homeless populations, a review of guardianship laws, and a potential expansion of home and community-based care. Medicare for All, which Biden has thus far refused to embrace, would provide a critical infrastructure for all of these other policies.

As Biden explores how a campaign might look given the limitations of in-person events, the campaign should seize the moment by fully incorporating disabled perspectives within the culture of the campaign, learning from the many activists who have long considered how to activate political movements beyond the physical spaces where protests take place. His conversation with activist Ady Barkan exemplifies this impulse within the campaign, which may hopefully pave the way for significant alliances with online networks of disabled activists. For example, Alice Wong has modeled various forms of activism online via a podcast, a newly released book featuring many disabled people of color, and blogging that aggregates diverse voices to explore topics such as “26 ways to be in the struggle, beyond the streets.” Both in substance and in symbolism, Biden can embrace disability.

To return to the words of Tobin Siebers, he suggests that the “culture wars are not only about what culture will mean in the future but also about who deserves to be included in our culture, and the determining factor in these political decisions often depends on being able to display a healthy body and mind.” Biden and his supporters should not respond to ableist slurs by pointing to Trump’s presumed disabilities, nor should they attempt to prove Biden’s ablebodiedness as a testament to his worthiness as a candidate. Rather, Biden and those supporting his campaign can repudiate Trump’s ableist politicking by celebrating the ways in which disability can inform and advance all struggles for justice.

Byrd McDaniel is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University. Paul M. Renfro is an assistant professor of history at Florida State University and the author of Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State (Oxford University Press, 2020).

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